December 28, 2006
Gene Chips Will Lower Genetic Testing Costs

Illumina has a gene chip that can check for the presence of 650,000 distinct single letter differences in human genetic code.

One of the makers of these new gene chips, San Diego-based Illumina, is now looking ahead to the next phase of medical genetics. The company has recently acquired new diagnostic and sequencing technologies, which it plans to use to better identify medically relevant genes. Ultimately, the goal is to diagnose risk of specific diseases and identify the best treatment options for certain patients.

The Illumina chip contains 650,000 short sequences of DNA that can identify SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms), carefully selected from a map of human genetic variation known as the HapMap (see "A New Map for Health"). Each SNP represents a spot of the genome that frequently varies among individuals and acts as a signpost for that genomic region. Scientists use the chip to search for genetic variants that are more common in a group of people with the disease of interest.

This chip illustrates why the application of computer industry semiconductor process technologies to biology are so going to lower the cost of doing biological research and biomedical testing and treatment. The computer industry has developed technology to produce chips in bulk at low and declining cost.

Initially these chips will be used for research. Their lower costs will speed up the search for the meaning of genetic variations. Same sized research budgets will produce more genetic testing results each year as gene chip prices fall. Already the ability to look at 650,000 genetic variations in a single person with a single chip is going to cause a huge increase in the rate of genetic testing.

As these chips help scientists discover the significance of an increasing number of genetic variations the result will be discovery of variations whose existence becomes useful for each individual to know. For example, prospective parents wanting a particular eye or hair color or facial shape will be able to use gene chips to do pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD or PIGD) on embryos fertilized in a lab (in vitro fertilization or IVF).

As soon as SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms or single letter differences in genetic code) are discovered for facial features, hair texture, hair and eye color, height, musculature, intelligence, and other attributes the use of gene chips to test for these attributes in embryos will explode. We could be 5 years away from the start of extensive genetic testing of embryos.

A Stanford team says the reading device of their genetic chip design could fit in a shoe box.

Stanford researchers have integrated an array of tiny magnetic sensors into a silicon chip containing circuitry that reads the sensor data. The magnetic biochip could offer an alternative to existing bioanalysis tools, which are costly and bulky.

"The magnetic chip and its reader can be made portable, into a system the size of a shoebox," says Shan Wang, professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, CA. Its small size, he says, could make it useful at airports for detecting toxins, such as anthrax, and at crime scenes for DNA analysis.

Reductions in the size of genetic testing equipment also reduce the ability of governments to regulate the use of genetic testing. Want to ban genetic testing of employees and prospective employees? Kinda hard to do if a device the size of a shoe box can let you test dandruff flakes or hair droppings from a job interviewee. Easily find out whether the guy or gal has genetic variations associated with greater honesty or a greater proclivity to steal. Throw in the identification of some genetic variations that affect level of work motivation and lots of smaller employers especially will do secret genetic testing of job prospects.

If some governments try to ban genetic testing of embryos expect to see other countries keep embryo genetic testing unregulated. Then watch how a lot more babies get conceived on "vacations" to Caribbean islands or other countries that see big profits in medical tourism. Then for that fraction of the human race which embraces gene testing of embryos the rate of evolution will skyrocket. Anyone who doesn't jump on this will find their offspring left behind in the job market.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 December 28 01:26 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

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